Something in the Air
Photographs by Sarah Illenberger
n the 1970s, the bogeyman was power lines. Low-frequency electromagnetic fields were emanating from them all the time, and a shocking 1979 study suggested that children who developed cancer lived near power lines “unduly often.” Around the same time, because of Cold War panic about radiation in general , televisions and microwave ovens also became a possible human health catastrophe. Later, concern bubbled up around a slew of other household appliances , including hair dryers and electric blankets.
Now the advance of cellphones and, more recently, the new high-speed networks built to serve them have given rise to a paranoid coalition who believe to varying degrees in a massive cover-up of deleterious harm. The devices are different, but the fears are the same: The radiation from the things we use every single day is destroying us; our modern world is a colossal mistake. The stakes are about as high as they could possibly be: If it were true that our cellphones were causing brain tumors, that our wireless devices were damaging our DNA, and that radiation emanating from cell towers was sickening us in any untold number of ways, this would be the greatest human health disaster the world has ever known. As well as, perhaps, its greatest capitalist conspiracy.
It’s too big to be true. The science is confusing, but the World Health Organization, noting decades of research, has found no significant health risks from low-level electromagnetic fields. Yet amid a broader tech backlash—against screens, against social media, against power consolidating in a handful of companies, against a technology industry that rolls out new products and protocols faster than we can keep up or argue with, against the general fatigue and malaise associated with a life spent typing and scrolling—it’s just big enough to seem, to many, like the obvious explanation for so much being wrong.
A wildly disorienting pandemic coming at the same time as the global rollout of 5G—the newest technology standard for wireless networks—has only made matters worse. “5G launched in CHINA. Nov 1, 2019. People dropped dead,” the singer Keri Hilson wrote in a now-deleted tweet to her 4.2 million followers in March. As the coronavirus spread throughout Europe, fears about 5G appear to have animated a rash of vandalism and arson of mobile infrastructure, including more than 30 incidents in the U.K. in just the first 10 days of April. In the case of one arson attack in the Netherlands , the words “Fuck 5G” were reportedly found scrawled at the scene. Mobile- and broadband-infrastructure workers have also reported harassment and threats from deluded citizens: A recent Wired UK report detailed an instance in which a London network engineer was spit on; he later contracted an illness that was suspected to be the coronavirus.
[ Read: The coronavirus conspiracy boom ]